May 06 2017

Corn Salad

Published by under Plants

Two kinds of corn salad: Valerianella locusta and Corn with black beans (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Two kinds of corn salad: Valerianella locusta and Corn with black beans (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Late last month a group of us found corn salad at Enlow Fork (SGL 302) in Greene County, Pennsylvania.  Which one did we see?  The plant on the left, not the food on the right.

Ah, but the plant is food.

Corn salad (Valerianella locusta) is an edible annual, native to Europe, with a mild nutty flavor.  Its smooth-edged leaves form a basal rosette, then opposite pairs on the stem topped by tiny, white, tubular flowers.

Corn salad, Enlow Fork, 28 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Corn salad, Enlow Fork, 28 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Centuries ago corn salad graduated from a forage plant to cultivation, perhaps in France where it is grown primarily near Nantes today.

According to Wikipedia, it spread through the rest of Europe — and eventually here — after King Louis XIV’s gardener promoted it.  Along the way it acquired a lot of other names including mâche and rapunzel.  Corn salad wasn’t named for the maiden with long hair. The fairy tale Rapunzel was named for the plant.

Missouri Botanical Garden describes how to harvest it:  Before it flowers, pick the rosette. After it flowers harvest the entire plant.

We didn’t eat it, though.  It’s too pretty.

 

(Side by side photos from Wikimedia Commons: Valerianella locusta and corn+black bean salad. Flower closeup by Kate St.John)

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May 05 2017

What Will A Crow Eat?

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Have you noticed there aren’t a lot of crows lately?  That’s right.  Pittsburgh’s huge winter flock has dispersed and those who remain are nesting.  They’re here, but they’re quiet.

Though crows are secretive right now, you’ll sometimes see one hunting for food.  Lesley The Bird Nerd filmed one catching frogs and stashing peanuts in Canada.

Where can you find crows in May?  Near food.

What will a crow eat?  Just about anything.

 

(video from Lesley The Bird Nerd)

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May 04 2017

How the Blackburnian Got His Name

Published by under Songbirds

Blackburnian Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Blackburnian Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Oh Throw Back Thursday:

This stunning bird with a flame-orange throat is due to arrive this weekend in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.

Did you know he’s one of the few birds named for a woman?  Read on …

How he got his name

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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May 03 2017

A Common Thread

Common nighthawk chasing a flying insect (drawing by Bob Hines, USFW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Common nighthawk pursuing a flying insect (drawing by Bob Hines, USFW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Common nighthawks are my “Spark Bird,” the species that turned me into a birder.

Nighthawks are due back in Pittsburgh soon but their population has declined precipitously in this century.  Fifteen years ago I used to see flocks of 20 to 30 nighthawks swooping over our neighborhood ballpark.  Now I’m lucky to see just one.

This week I learned that chimney swifts and bank swallows are declining, too.  Most of it happened in this century. Trouble everywhere.  And so I wonder:  Do these species share a trait that’s causing their mutual decline?

Is it a problem with their nesting sites?  The answer is mixed.

  • In cities nighthawks nest on gravel roofs but gravel has been replaced by rubber.  City nest sites have declined so the answer for nighthawks is Yes.
  • Chimney swifts nest in chimneys. Some reports say the number of chimneys has gone down. (This has spawned projects to provide artificial chimneys.)  Other reports say the chimney count is OK. I’ve not seen a decline in Pittsburgh chimneys.  Answer for chimney swifts:  Maybe.
  • Bank swallows nest colonially in holes that they dig in the banks of lakes and rivers. These sites seem to be stable. Answer for bank swallows: Probably No.

Is it a problem where they spend the winter? Do they all go to the same place?   Not exactly.

  • Nighthawks spend the winter from eastern Ecuador, eastern Peru and southern Brazil to Argentina.
  • Chimney swifts winter in western Peru and the upper Amazon basin.
  • Bank swallows spend the winter in nearly all of South America.

Do they eat similar food?  Yes!  All of them eat flying insects!

There’s a common thread.  Recent studies have shown that around the world invertebrates including insects have declined 45% in the last 40 years and in Germany insect biomass has declined 81% from 1989 to 2014.  Though insect decline has happened across the spectrum, it’s not something that’s made headline news except for two species not eaten by these birds: monarch butterflies and honeybees.

With such a massive drop in flying insects it’s no wonder that the birds who eat them have declined.  And there’s another interesting side effect.  The fish that eat flying insects are declining as well.  Discovered in the U.K. in 2003, this problem threatens the fly fishing industry.

A massive decline in flying insects and the birds and fish that eat them indicates we have a large and widespread problem.  My hunch is that it’s something in the environment and it’s caused by us.

We humans are ignoring it at our peril.

 

Here are resources for learning more:

 

(drawing of common nighthawk by Bob Hines, US Fish and Wildlife, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

4 responses so far

May 02 2017

Pittsburgh Peregrine News, 2 May 2017

Dori feeds three chicks, 1 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Dori feeds three chicks, 1 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Here’s news of Pittsburgh’s two “on camera” peregrine families:

  • Dori and Louie + 3 chicks (G1, G2, G3) hatched 19 April at the Gulf Tower,
  • Hope and Terzo + 3 chicks (C6, C7, C8) hatched 25 April at the Cathedral of Learning.

At the Gulf Tower the chicks are old enough that they don’t need to be brooded. Their parents are nearby but you usually can’t see them on camera … except in this photo.

Adult perched on the ledge (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Adult perched on the ledge (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

When peregrine falcon chicks are two weeks old — May 3 at this nest — they walk off the scrape.  These chicks have already begun walking (see below) so we’ll try to zoom out the Gulf Tower camera soon.  If one chick “disappears” it’s only because he walked an inch out of view and we weren’t quick enough to zoom out.

The peregrine chicks are starting to explore at the Gulf Tower, 1 May 2017 (photo from the national Aviary falconcam)

The peregrine chicks are starting to explore at the Gulf Tower, 1 May 2017 (photo from the national Aviary falconcam)

 

After a disturbing start at the Cathedral of Learning, the adults are caring for three nestlings.  These chicks are smaller than those at the Gulf Tower because they’re six days younger.

Terzo brooding three chicks, 1 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Terzo brooding three chicks, 1 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

On Sunday April 30, Terzo was seen limping and favoring his left foot (shown below).

Terzo shows his left foot doesn't feel good, 30 April 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Terzo shows his left foot doesn’t feel good, 30 April 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Those of us who’ve watched falconcams for many years know that injuries like this occur fairly often and the parents cope. Yesterday Terzo was limping less, so he’s getting better. If his foot heals nicely, that’s great. If it doesn’t, he’ll compensate. Meanwhile, the chicks will reach the no-more-brooding stage this week and their mother will resume hunting.  Hope will help provide for them, too.

 

During yesterday’s thunderstorm and Tornado Watch(!) all five family members huddled in the Cathedral of Learning nest.  Hope fed the chicks at the beginning of the storm, then everyone stood by and waited it out.

Terzo waits in the nest box while Hope feeds the chicks during the thunderstorm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Terzo waits in the nest box while Hope feeds the chicks during the thunderstorm, 1 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

The Pitt peregrines wait out the storm, 1 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

The Pitt peregrines wait out the storm, 1 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

You can see that Terzo, on the left, is clearly smaller than Hope. This male-female size difference is typical of peregrine falcons.

 

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning)

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May 01 2017

It’s Gonna Be A Great Week For Birds

Published by under Migration

Scarlet tanager, 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Scarlet tanager, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

The Big Push of migration is here!  I’ve already seen some gorgeous birds that are due this week and there’s more to come.  Here’s what we can look forward to.

Scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) were already at Enlow Fork in Greene County, Pennsylvania on Friday. When they get here, listen for two sounds that tell you this bird is nearby: the Chip-burr call and the male’s “robin with a sore throat” song.

American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) were everywhere at Enlow.  Their song can be hard to identify so look for the flash of the male’s black, white and orange colors at mid height in the trees.

American redstart, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

American redstart, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Schenley Park’s Panther Hollow Lake has a concrete border so I was surprised to find a solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) feeding there on Saturday morning, 29 April.  Look for these dark-backed sandpipers with white eye rings along the water’s edge. They travel alone.

Solitary sandpiper, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Solitary sandpiper, May 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

And here are two species that I haven’t seen yet.  According to Birdcast, they’ll arrive this week.

The magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) is a tiny bird with a yellow throat and belly that’s accented by a black necklace.  He has white splashes on his head, wings and tail that distinguish him from the Canada warbler. Here’s his song.

Magnolia warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Magnolia warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) are probably the most numerous thrush in North America but we only see them on migration in Pittsburgh.  Look for the buffy lores and eye ring and listen for their wiry upward spiraling song.

Swainson's thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

Swainson’s thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Bird migration is in full force in western Pennsylvania.  It’s going to be a great week for birds!

 

(All photos by Steve Gosser. Click here to see his photo blog.)

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Apr 30 2017

This Morning in Schenley Park

Schenley Park bird walk group, 30 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park outing, 30 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning there were 36 of us ready to go birding in Schenley Park at 8am.  We searched for birds in the Bartlett area and part of Lower and Falloon Trails, then walked the golf course edge for a view of the treetops along Serpentine Road.

The birds were quiet at first but became more active when the sun broke through the clouds.  Best Birds of the day were rose-breasted grosbeaks, the first-of-year ovenbird and a green heron at the lake.  I wish we’d seen the blue-winged warbler (heard singing) but we did see a peregrine falcon flying around the Cathedral of Learning.

I promised we’d end at 10am but a dozen people wanted to continue so we split up at 9:45a.  (Thank you, Marcus, for guiding folks back to Bartlett Street.)  So I have two lists of the birds we saw.  Let me know if I missed something.

Before 9:45m. Birds Seen and Heard, 8am-9:45am, 0.8 miles (until turn around). Click here for eBird checklist.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Blue Jay
Carolina Chickadee
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
European Starling
Ovenbird (first of year)
Blue-winged Warbler (heard by several of us, seen by Michelle)
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch

After 945am: Additional Species Seen and Heard, 9:45am-11:30am, 2.17 miles, via Panther Hollow Lake (Click here for the eBird list of additional birds)

Green Heron (first of year)
Osprey (2 flew over at Bartlett at the end of the walk)
Red-tailed Hawk (adult at Occupied Nest)
Chimney Swift
Hairy Woodpecker
Peregrine Falcon (flying and perched at Cathedral of Learning)
Eastern Phoebe
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Wood Thrush
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Palm Warbler (first of year)
Black-throated Green Warbler

Thanks, everyone, for coming out.  It was a great birding day!

When I got home I heard a white-eyed vireo singing in my neighborhood.  🙂

 

(photo by Kate St.John)

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Apr 30 2017

The Theories Are Worse Than The Furies

Hope sheltering three nestlings, 29 April 2017, 11:55a (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope sheltering three nestlings, 29 April 2017, 11:56a (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

So far so good.  The three nestlings at the Cathedral of Learning are all well fed and growing. Every day we gain more confidence that they’ll thrive.

Meanwhile we’re still puzzled why their mother, Hope, killed and ate the first-hatching chick as well as two of her four chicks last year.  We don’t know the answer but we have many theories.  It reminds me of a famous quote from Flannery O’Connor in Habit of Being (p. 502):

“The Theories are worse than the Furies.”

So who are the Furies?

According to Wikipedia, the Erinyes [also called the Furies] are ancient Greek goddesses from the underworld. They hear complaints brought by mortals against the insolence of the young to the aged, of children to parents, of hosts to guests, and of householders or city councils to suppliants.  They punish those crimes by hounding the culprits relentlessly and hitting them with brass-studded scourges.  Their victims die in torment.

Their most famous gig was to torment Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra who had an affair and killed his father Agamemnon. Orestes avenged his father’s murder but created a really big mess (read more here).  John Singer Sargent’s painting of Orestes Pursued by the Furies shows how awful the Furies can be.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by John Singer Sargent (reproduction from Wikimedia Commons)

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by John Singer Sargent (reproduction from Wikimedia Commons)

The Theories can be relentless, too.

We have lots of theories about Hope but no data to confirm or disprove them. (Hope eats the evidence.) The only thing we know is that she has repeated the behavior two years in a row and it’s so abnormal that we can find only a handful of similar incidents in all the history of peregrine nest monitoring.

We don’t have an answer but we can make ourselves crazy.

The Theories are worse than the Furies!

 

(photo of Hope and chicks from the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh. Reproduction of John Singer Sargent’s “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

18 responses so far

Apr 29 2017

The Catbirds Are Back In Town!

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Gray catbird (photo by Chuck Tague)

Gray catbird (photo by Chuck Tague)

Years ago Chuck Tague taught me that gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) are a special signal during spring migration.

Catbirds spend the winter in Florida, Cuba and Central America, then return in the spring after the first tantalizing migrants (the blue-gray gnatcatchers and Louisiana waterthrushes) but before the big push of warblers, thrushes and tanagers.

Because they’re the leading edge of the best part of migration, Chuck always announced his first gray catbird of the year.  I’ll carry on his tradition.

Yesterday was the day!  On 28 April I saw my first gray catbirds of 2017 at Enlow Fork in Greene County and at home in the City of Pittsburgh.

This year the catbirds did not arrive alone. At Enlow Fork we also saw rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, wood thrushes, northern parulas, American redstarts, common yellowthroats and more.

I’m still waiting for an indigo bunting.  Maybe today … 🙂

 

p.s.  Many of us learned a lot from Chuck Tague who passed away last June.  This coming Thursday, May 4 at 7:30pm the Wissahickon Nature Club will hold an All Members Night A Tribute to Chuck Tague.  Bring up to 12 slides or digital photos to share.  Click here and scroll down for location and meeting information.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Apr 28 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight

Woodcock mother and chicks at Magee Marsh, Ohio, May 2013 (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Woodcock mother and chicks at Magee Marsh, Ohio, 6 May 2013 (photo by Charlie Hickey)

We had so much peregrine news this week that Throw Back Thursday is a day late.  Today, at last, I can talk about a different bird.

Male American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) returned to Pennsylvania in late February or March and immediately set up their courtship “stomping” grounds.  At dusk they’d strut and peent, then launch into the air with whistling wings to claim territory and attract a mate.

By the end of April dancing time is nearly over because the females are nesting and their eggs will hatch soon. When they hatch, the chicks will be as well hidden as the eggs.

At Magee Marsh, Ohio in May 2013 this woodcock family was hidden in plain sight.  I couldn’t see them no matter how hard I tried!  Click the link below to read more.

Woodcock Family

 

(photo by Charlie Hickey)

p.s. I’ll be hiking out of cell range for most of today (28 April 2017) so I won’t be able to respond to your comments for at least six hours.  The peregrines had better behave while I’m gone!

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